Toby Summerfield found it tough to get anything going while living in Williamsburg.
At some point the guitarist was introduced to Scott Clark by a mutual friend. Some impromptu jams and recordings followed. But eventually, Summerfield picked up stakes and moved to the Northeast. He returns to Virginia with Ex Eye, a band harboring the simple goal of making supremely heavy music.
Along with saxophonist Colin Stetson, Liturgy drummer Greg Fox and Secret Chiefs 3 multi-instrumentalist Shahzad Ismaily, the band has issued a four-track debut on Relapse and seemingly succeeded at hitting the mark. It’s just that Ex Eye doesn’t readily slot into black metal or any other kind of metal. The quartet just shreds.
Before leaving Virginia, Summerfield recalls a trip through a grocery store check-out line, where the clerk noticed a guitar case nestled within a cart full of food and asked what bands the bearded customer played with. Summerfield explained Ex Eye — this was prior to the band gigging — and the clerk’s response was some adage about living black metal, not just playing it.
“The music we’re making is definitely informed by a wide variety of metal. To me, the working parts aren’t different than the other music I make,” Summerfield says. “It relates a lot to the music Colin and I made when we were kids in Ann Arbor.”
Stetson moved from the Michigan town at the end of the ’90s, with Summerfield departing a few years later, the guitarist said. The two haven’t followed divergent paths, but the sax player has contributed to recordings by Tom Waits and Bon Iver. Summerfield, for his part, has led his own ensembles, gigged with mathy Chicago bands and worked with Charlottesville-based composer and improviser Chris Dammann. His Milk Factory Productions issued “The Gravity of Our Commitment” by the guitarist’s Never Enough Hope project in 2015.
“He’s really thoughtful. And he plays from a compositional place that’s hard to find in guitar players,” Dammann says about Summerfield. “He almost plays like a pianist. ... His approach to texture is what attracted me to his playing.”
In describing a spring performance in Charlottesville with Dammann, Summerfield details some of the less traditional moves he showcases on his instrument.
“What Chris asks from his band is a bigger stretch than if I’m playing in a rock band. But all the soundscapey stuff I was doing. … That world is part of my sound,” he says.
The self-titled Ex Eye album enables Summerfield to assimilate some of those minimalist inclinations into a metal context. He compares the album to a dream world where Steve Reich writes “Generation,” a particularly repetitive track from Fox’s 2011 recording with Liturgy, “Aesthetica.”
The whole thing’s seriously composed, perhaps making New York stalwarts Z’s as much of a touchstone as anything else. And on “Opposition/Perihelion; the Coil,” the second track off Ex Eye’s album, Summerfield riffs methodically for the better part of a minute before the entire ensemble drops into something the feels circular, something that could, like Reich’s work, spiral toward repetition for an hour. Surely, Stetson’s voice sticks out — a woodwinds’ timbre in the context of aggressive music like this almost always would. But one of the remarkable things about Ex Eye is that the ensemble isn’t overwhelmed by a single player’s personality. And given the group’s accumulated credits, that’s a notable achievement.
“There’s a lot of that collaborative energy. To me, it feels like everyone’s voice is represented, but also that the band has its own voice,” Summerfield says. “It’s not like in an improvised section it’s four dudes saying things in their own voice; it’s people working to make a collective voice.”
The unified sound Ex Eye extols is set to be rendered live Thursday at Strange Matter: a retelling of the album, with tracks reorganized. Summerfield says the self-titled effort aptly represents the ensemble’s composerly ambitions. But on stage, there’s a unique vitality to the quartet’s work.
“People have remarked on the free jazz key of the record. And I think that energy is more apparent live,” Summerfield says. “Playing it live, it’s much more intense and a lot more, I don’t know, maybe ‘freewheeling’ is the word.” S
Ex Eye performs at Strange Matter with Bermuda Triangles and Dumb Waiter on Thursday, Aug. 17, at 9 p.m. $10 in advance and $12 on the day of the show. Ages 18 and older.